How to Use Commas in English to Improve Your Writing

Grammar, Vocab and Pronunciation, How To Develop Skills | 16 comments

“A woman without her man is nothing”

This sentence, without punctuation, is easy to find on the Internet. What do you think the writer of this sentence wanted to say?

Without any punctuation, it’s impossible to know the meaning. But did you know you have the power to change the meaning of this sentence with the comma? You do!

So what do you think? How would you punctuate this sentence?

Here are two more ways this sentence is often written with punctuation:

  • Woman, without her man, is nothing.
  • Woman: without her, man is nothing.

Did you notice that with some simple commas and punctuation, the meaning is very different in each sentence? That is a powerful comma!!

Here’s the problem: it can be easy to make mistakes with commas.  And comma mistakes can change the meaning of a sentence, they can look unprofessional, or they can cause misunderstanding.

If you write emails, business letters, Facebook posts, research papers, PowerPoint slides, magazine or newspaper articles, or exams in English, then you need to know how to use commas. This lesson was created for you!

In today’s Confident English lesson, you’ll learn:

  • 3 Common Mistakes with Commas and How You Can Fix Them
  • 5 Useful Comma Rules for Correct, Impressive English Writing
  • The Great Comma Debate and What You Should Do

(P.S. Did you know native speakers make mistakes with commas too? They do! So don’t worry, you’re not alone.)

How to Use Commas in English to Improve Your Writing

FLUENCY DOESN'T NEED TO BE DIFFICULT

From your smart phone, laptop, tablet or computer ... 

Join more than 8,000 others in the Confident English Community & get immediate access to my free resource library created to perfect your English skills. 

3 Common Mistakes with Commas & How You Can Fix Them

Every week I receive emails from people all over the world. I also help students prepare written documents for work and academic studies. I often see the same mistakes again and again. Here are 3 of the most common errors and how you can fix them.

Greetings and Salutations

Incorrect:

  • Dear, Annemarie,
  • Dear Annemarie
  • Hello Annemarie!
  • Hi Annemarie,

In salutations or greetings, a comma is not used after Dear but it is used after words such as Hi, Hello, or Good Morning. This is proper English punctuation.

In emails, it has become common not to use a comma between a word such as Hi and the person’s name. For example: 

  • Hi Sue,
  • Hey Lara,

For informal emails, this may be acceptable. However, in business or professional emails, I recommend you follow the proper grammar form.

Correct:

  • Hello, Susan,
  • Good morning, Ms. Smith.
  • Dear Lara,
  • Hi, Selma!

 

Dates

Incorrect:

  • June, 2016
  • 3, June 2016
  • June 3 2016
  • Thursday 3 June
  • Thursday June 3

When the date is written with the day/month/year or month/year, no comma is needed.

Correct:

  • 3 June 2016
  • June 2016

If the date is written in the American format with month/day/year, a comma should be used between the day and year.

Correct:

  • June 3, 2016

And finally, if the weekday is included with the date, it should be separated with a comma.

Correct:

  • Thursday, 3 June
  • Thursday, June 3

Example: On Tuesday, October 11, the next Fluency Challenge starts. Have you signed up yet?

No Commas

Incorrect:

Thank you for your email which you sent me last Friday about how I can improve my writing skills learn vocabulary and speak freely because they really help me but I think I still have a question for you about how I can practice at home and how I can learn quickly.

This is only an example sentence, but it is similar to many emails I receive.

A common error is to use no comma because you’re not sure. This can be confusing to your reader, so it’s important to follow comma rules in English.

You can start using commas today to improve your writing by following the useful rules below!

5 Useful Comma Rules for Correct, Impressive English Writing

Punctuation helps you write clearly and naturally in English. One of the most common punctuation marks is the comma.

Commas provide necessary pauses in a sentence and create structure. The structure of a sentence provides meaning; the structure also helps you to say what you want to say. Unfortunately, it can be easy to make mistakes with the comma, which can cause misunderstanding or confusion.

Use these basic rules of commas in your writing. This will help your writing to be natural, clear, and easy to understand.

1. Quotes and Direct Speech

Use a comma before and after direct speech quotes.

  • He looked at everyone in the room and then asked, “How do you think we should solve this issue?”
  • “How do you think we should solve this issue,” he asked after looking at everyone for a long time.*

*American and British English use different rules for punctuation inside quotes. With British English, the comma moves outside the quotation marks:

  • “How do you think we should solve this issue”, he asked after looking at everyone for a long time.

2. And, But, Yet, So… Connecting Two Sentences

  • I went to the store to buy some milk.
  • Then I went to the post office to mail the package.

The two sentences above are complete sentences. In English, when we combine two complete sentences, we call it a compound sentence.

To make a compound sentence, we need a comma and a word such as and, but, yet, so, or nor. 

  • I went to the store to buy some milk, and I went to the post office to the mail the package.
  • She sent her colleague an email, but later she realized she forgot to include the attachment.
  • We really love drama films, so we went to the theater this weekend to see the new modern Shakespeare movie.
  • I spoke with Ben briefly on the telephone, but he had to get to work so he didn’t have time to talk about the party next week. I’ll call him later.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Do you notice in these compound sentences, there is a subject (I, she, we, he) in both parts of the sentence? You must do this for your compound sentence to be grammatically correct.

If you don’t include a subject in the second part of a sentence, then you don’t need a comma. Example:

  • I went to the store to buy some milk and to the post office to mail the package.
  • She sent her colleague an email but later realized she forgot to include the attachment.

3. In addition, For example, However, First, Second, Finally… Introductory & Transition Words

When your sentence starts with an introductory word or a transition word, you need to use a common after the word or phrase.

Introductory words include in addition, for example, however, in fact, on the other hand, and names.

Transition words include first, second, third, finally, after that, next, and then.

  • In addition, I’d like to discuss your ideas for how to keep sales strong after the holidays.
  • He loves the football! In fact, all he does on the weekends is watch football games.
  • Joan, could you send me that document we discussed this morning?
  • Finally, could you also add some time to talk about next week’s lesson plan to the meeting agenda? I have some ideas I want to talk with you about.

4. Adding Extra Details in a Sentence

  1. A journalist from the New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize.
  2. A journalist from the New York Times, who focuses on investigative reporting, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Let’s look at these two sentences. Sentence 1 is a complete sentence and all of the information is necessary.

In Sentence 2, we’ve added extra details. These details provide more information and make the sentence more interesting, but they are not necessary. We can remove ‘who focuses on investigative reporting’ and still have a sentence. As a result, we use commas to separate these extra details.

Here are two more examples:

  • John, who has been the president of the company for 37 years, is retiring next week.
  • The Fluency Challenge, which is only offered 4 times per year, starts next month! Have you signed up yet?

5. Lists of Words and Series of Words

If you are including a list of words in your sentence, then each word or phrase in the list should be separated by a comma. A conjunction (and/or) usually separates the final two items in the list. Use a final comma before the conjunction. This final comma is known as the Oxford Comma* or Serial Comma.*

  • Oh no! We’re out of coffee! Please remember to add milk, coffee, and coffee filters to your grocery list. If I don’t have my coffee in the morning, I’ll be grouchy!
  • I’ve invited our neighbors, parents, Tom’s colleagues, and some old friends to his surprise party. I hope everyone can make it.

If you use a series of adjectives or adverbs in a sentence, each word should be separated by a comma.

  • We’ve been looking for a new house for months but haven’t had any luck yet. The house we looked at yesterday was small, old, and run-down. It would cost too much to renovate it.
  • The 10-Day Speaking Challenge is the perfect opportunity to practice speaking naturally, fluently, and confidently in English.
  • On their vacation to Rome, they visited the Vatican, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum, and St. Peter’s Basilica.

 

*The Comma Debate!

There is great debate about using the Oxford or Serial Comma. Some people argue that it helps to clarify information. Other people argue it is unnecessary because of the conjunction and/or. In the world of journalism, the Oxford Comma is often omitted (not used) to save space.

What should you do?

Generally, in the United States, the Oxford Comma is commonly used except in journalism. This means you should use the Oxford Comma for emails, business letters, research papers, academic essays, books, short stories, etc. But you should not use the Oxford Comma for a newspaper article.

However, in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia, it is more common to omit the Oxford Comma.

These are general rules. If you are writing a paper, essay, article, or document, it is best to find out what style is accepted.

It’s Your Turn to Practice

I’d love to hear from you!

Do you write in English for work or for your studies?

What are some of your greatest challenges? Share your challenges in the comments section below or ask questions. It’s the perfect place to have a discussion.

I’d also like to know, what has helped you the most in your English writing?

Now for the CHALLENGE Question: Can you explain to me the difference between the two sentences:

  • Woman, without her man, is nothing.
  • Woman: without her, man is nothing.

Share your answers in the comments.

Thanks for joining me and I wish you a fantastic Confident English Wednesday!

~ Annemarie

Get Confident English Every Week

Join me for every Wednesday for Confident English lessons and get instant access to my free resource library!

Join the Speak Confident English Resource Library

The Confident English Resource Library

Get instant access to free guides, worksheets, and more to feel less stressed about your English.

You'll be glad you did.

You have Successfully Subscribed!